A Close Reading of a Life

The more difficult things become – subjectively – the more I want to make beautiful things, and the more frustrated I become with my lagging craftsmanship. I spend evenings in the studio staring at the paper. Judging. I should have invested more time here. Been patient with myself. I understand now the absurdity of impatience.

M. writes about her diagnosis in a chat message. B. talks around hers over the phone, but on social media, she writes amusing anecdotes about chemo and radiation therapy.

And I find myself separated by one more degree from other – more sudden – death. My brother’s chosen brother, whose parents watched the coffin being carried out of the church yesterday. Put in the ground.

There are places we don’t want our minds to go.

I pull back and assess an angle from which to offer… what exactly? There’s no comfort to offer M. and B., so I offer attention. And I try to comfort the grieving along that chain of sorrow. The people whose pain I understand. Whose helplessness I can relate to. We can choose our connections, but we cannot choose our losses.

I can at least relate to loss.

Yesterday I dug out the last letters to and from my mother. And to and from my grandmother. All the pain came rushing back very unexpectedly. The anger. Fury. Clicking and popped in my chest like a wasps nest as I told myself to keep breathing. To let go of the tightness. There is nothing to brace myself for. It’s over. I copied them and tore them into strips and began the process of making something.

Beautiful is absolutely the wrong word.



The odd thing is that sorting through this single box of the artifacts of my life, I also ran across love letters from my ex-husband. I couldn’t bring myself to read them but I glanced at some of the phrases on the brittle paper. I’d forgotten the sweetness. The openness. And I mean forgotten in the sense that in reading them I experienced no recognition whatsoever. I am glad I didn’t see these during the divorce process, it would have overwhelmed me to see the whole of what was lost over the years. What good I needlessly let go of. Why can’t I look at these and just think: how lucky we were for that span of time? Without running a post mortem on those twenty-two years. Appreciating, but not clinging, to the people we were.

Nothing is permanent and, for me at least, life has been a series of small but absolute endings that are metaphors for death itself. My mother used to practice for her own mother’s death. That seems superfluous.

Some holy people meditate on their own rotting corpses. But new life begins in the decomposition. The ripping up of the old constellations of parts, making something new of the elements.

For right now: I choose to focus on that. The ripping-up. The making-new. One true thing from all of the lies.

I think that the more I do it, the better I might get at it.

3 Replies to “A Close Reading of a Life”

  1. And today, you’re visceral. That’s good. And the words brilliant and shiny. As you say, “The making-new.”

  2. I had a friend long ago who used her old journal pages and letters in torn and crumpled forms, coated them in glue and paint to create collage-like relief abstract paintings on canvas. She made such works for about a decade while working through some “psycho-emotional challenges.”

    We lost touch for many years, and recently I came across her name in a gallery show. She apparently needed to get through the abstract gritty stuff to move onward in painting. Her new work is entirely different and–interestingly–“reads” to me as calmer, more content. Also less abstract; the newer paintings are more like impressionist landscapes, but informed by her work in abstract art, if that makes any sense. Whatever you are experiencing–and it all sounds hard–you are keeping track. And staying creative. We never know what elements we’ll end up synthesizing into a life.

  3. That’s funny. Yes. I’ve been working with text and image collages. And exquisite corpses and other installation elements. It’s exciting.


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